Living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Episode 2 : When did you first notice? | 05/05/2009
ANDY BURNFIELD: Hello, and welcome to episode number two of Living with OCD. I’m Andy Burnfield, and we’ll be continuing to talk with my wife Julie about her experiences in life with OCD.
JULIE BURNFIELD: Hello!
Andy: So, let’s jump right in there. Last time, we talked about kind of what OCD was, and you know, little bit about what it’s like for you to deal with it. So, today I wanted to talk a little bit more about growing up. You know, what you remember in childhood, where this kind of started for you, and things like that. When did you first become aware that there was something different? I’m sure you didn’t originally know what it was, but how old were you and what were the circumstances surrounding when you discovered that there was something different about you?
JULIE: Well, kind of started off slowly, and I didn’t really become fully aware of this—how early my OCD started—until I was probably in college and studying psychology. And, you know, with insight and with studying your actual problem you can gain a lot of knowledge. So, looking back on it, I can see that my OCD started right when I was around four or five years old. So pretty young.
ANDY: Thinking back to it, was there a point when you were a child that you realized you were different, or was it not until you were an adult and you kind of looked back that you noticed?
JULIE: No, I knew that there was something different. I just didn’t know what it was—because obviously I didn’t know what OCD was—but I knew the things I had to do to make me function, and I knew the things I had to do to make me feel less anxious.
ANDY: What were some of those things? What made you different, when you were younger, from other kids?
JULIE: Well, it wasn’t really my interaction with other children, per se. It was all started in my home.
I remember being probably four or five, as I said, and every time I would come home from school, every day I would come home and I would sit on the couch with my mom and watch our game show that we watched every night. And I would start thinking about my day (in my head; just thoughts and thoughts and thoughts, every thing I did, every thing I said, everybody I talked to) and I started thinking about all the wrong things that I’d done that day. If I wasn’t nice to my teacher, if I’d said something wrong to one of my little friends, if I’d talked back to my mother; all those things built up in my head, and literally manifest themself physically by giving me the worst stomachache.
And I remember, every night, I would get this terrible, terrible stomachache, thinking about all the wrong things that I’d done throughout the day. So I made a list in my head (imagine that, a list!) made a list in my head, and the compulsion for getting rid of that list—and getting rid of that anxiety in my head, getting rid of that stomachache—was the minute my father came through the door at night (he always worked late, he was, you know, owned his own business, so had long hours), the minute he walked in the door, I would run to the door and I would immediately have to spew everything I’d done wrong during the day.
It’s not like, “Hi, Daddy, how was your day? What’s for dinner? What are we doing this weekend?” It was like, “Hi, Daddy. Um, I told Mommy ‘no’, and I slapped Jackie at school, and I didn’t get an A on my test, and I’m just so sorry, and, and—is it going to be ok? Is it going to be ok?”
And I’m not sure he really knew what to say—because I was so young and this happened like every day—but for me that was the only way to get rid of my stomachache, so I didn’t really know what else to do. I didn’t know it was OCD. I guess I just came back to the thing of not feeling good enough, and feeling guilty, that I had done all these bad things. And so all the guilt would build up in my mind, I would obsess constantly over it, and then my compulsion for getting rid of that anxiety, as I mentioned, was just spewing it out to my father.
So early on he kind of became one of the, I don’t know, targets of my OCD. And that kind of, I think maybe—starting back that early with having to, quote unquote, confess all that stuff to him—kind of maybe is the root of all, you know, maybe, the difficulty that I’ve had in relating to my father, when I think about that. It could relate all back to that. Which is kind of just a thing I’m becoming aware of as I say it. Kind of like happened in the last episode.
ANDY: Were there things that happened, like at school, that you remember now, that you know, ways that you interacted with the kids that you were friends with, or things like that that you see now, they probably thought were a little bit weird or different? You know, did anybody ever say anything to you? Or did you just kind of hide it when you were at school?
JULIE: Yeah, I think for the most part I hid it when I was younger. When I was a teenager, obviously, we could talk about that later, but it became worse when I was a teenager.
ANDY: No, you can talk about that now. That’s cool. We’re talking about in childhood all the way up through, I would guess, before you started college, so… .
JULIE: Okay. Well, when I was that young, and in school, I think I hid it pretty well. And I think it was kind of generalized just to my home and to my obsessive feelings of guilt and having to confess them to my father, so that’s really my main memory from early childhood.
I was always the neat person, and I was always the perfectionist (which, you know, is a small part of it), but what really happened was, when I started to get older—I don’t know, around fifteen, or sixteen or so—I started kind of rebelling against my parents (as all kids do), and wanting to break out on my own, find out who I was on my own, and so on and so forth; and started going out, hanging out with some friends, and started meeting guys and all that kind of stuff; and started going out with this one guy in particular.
And it kind of happened that the way the OCD developed was, I was hanging out with this guy so much and dating this guy, and really started to like him and the more that I liked him, the more that I started to not like my father—if that makes sense—because, you know, he treated me well, he liked me for who I was.
My father was the one with all the rules, my father was the one who disciplined me and so forth, so it kind of became a dichotomy to me where I started thinking, “My father is bad, and my boyfriend is good.” And the way that started to manifest itself is: “Everything in my house is now bad, and everything outside of my house—you know, my boyfriend, my friends and so forth—is good.” That happens with OCD sometimes; you classify things as bad and as good. At least for me anyway. So…
ANDY: And you think that, this classification, that was strictly because (not necessarily because of the way you were actually treated), but it was more in your head?
JULIE: Yes, it was more in my head. I mean, my parents were strict and my parents had a lot of rules and so forth, but looking back on it as an adult, I think it was totally—not totally in my head, but probably ninety percent in my head—so…
ANDY: Yeah, I would—I mean, I’m just going to jump in here a little bit—but I would look on your parent’s side a little bit. You have, like you said, a little bit strict parents; but pretty normal, you know, nothing weird kind of stuff with your parents, if that makes any sense. But, I can see, from my point of view, where a lot of that was probably because of the way that your mind works. You know, knowing what I know now…
ANDY: …when we first got married I didn’t understand a lot of that. But, you know, because you were still dealing with a lot of that, because we were just married (you were just out from under your parents), and you were still dealing with a lot of “my dad’s bad” and “we don’t want to do stuff with, you know, we don’t want to be around him”; and at the time, for me, I wasn’t sure what to do, because all I knew was what we had been together for the past two or so years before we got married, and I didn’t really know your parents at all and so all I had to go by was what you told me.
And thinking back on to a lot of that now, from my point of view, I can really see where a lot of that was not necessarily in your head, but was related to your OCD.
JULE: Oh, definitely. And with OCD, a lot of it’s about extremes. So to me, my extreme was classifying my family and everything in my house as bad. And…
ANDY: Well, and you had, part of your thing that you dealt with (and I don’t know if it’s as strong now), but you had to classify everything. Didn’t you? I mean, it wasn’t just the…
ANDY: I mean we’re talking about your parents right now, but it seems like to me, when I remember back, that you had to classify everything you did and everything you touched, and everything that you saw had to be put in some kind of a classification.
JULIE: Yeah, it all had to be black or white. Either good or bad. And what happens is, after I made that classification of good and bad, then I started not wanting the good to interact with the bad.
What I mean by that is, after I would be out for the evening with my boyfriend—one other thing is my parents didn’t know about my boyfriend, so that kind of just intensified it, as wanting to keep that separate—so I didn’t want the good to come in contact with the bad. That’s basically how it started, to put it in a nutshell. So every time I would come home from being on a date with my boyfriend or something like that, everything would be bad all of a sudden, and I couldn’t let the good touch the bad. So if I touched the door handle that I knew my dad had touched, and I had just touched my boyfriend, then I would have, so to speak, “good germs” on my hand, and then I’d touch the doorknob that I know my dad just touched, then that would the bad germs touching the good germs, and then that would be infected. And then I would have the bad germs on me.
That’s how it started. That’s where it got the worst. That’s where the compulsions came into play. It all started out with this “bad germs, good germs” thing; the separation of my family from my boyfriend and my friends.
So basically, as a teenager growing up, those couple years before I left for college I basically became sort of a prisoner in my own house. I couldn’t touch anything. Every time I touched something, I had to wash my hands; I had to lick my hands (don’t do that anymore, by the way) but sometimes I thought licking my hands would make the “bad germs” go away; every time I did a light switch, well that had to be good, not bad, so I had to switch it off seven times. The little buttons that locked the doors, that had to be done seven times. Everything had to be even. It just got worse and worse and worse. And that’s when it really got bad, and that’s when I really first started to notice that, “Wow, this is something that I’m”…
ANDY: About how old were you when you say things started to get bad?
JULIE: Sixteen, seventeen.
ANDY: And were there other aspects of your life, besides just being at home and your family, that this affected?
JULIE: Everywhere. Everywhere I went it started to affect it. It started at home, as I said. Started off kind of small, and then transferred to everywhere—where everywhere I went, everything I looked at, everything I touched was either bad germs or good germs. So if I touched someone, (this is so weird) if I touched someone that was friends with my father, they would automatically become bad. They would automatically become dirty, and just full of germs.
ANDY: Wait, let me just clarify.
ANDY: When you would touch somebody that touched your dad? Or what are you saying?
JULIE: Somebody that was friends with my dad.
JULIE: Didn’t have to touch my dad.
ANDY: So just an association with your dad…
ANDY: …made them bad.
JULIE: Made them dirty; bad germs. Yep. I couldn’t touch them. I could touch them, but then I’d have to go wash my hands.
JULIE: I was probably washing my hands maybe a hundred times a day, to try and keep the bad germs away from the good germs. I’d walk down the sidewalk and I couldn’t step on the cracks. I had to count everything evenly.
ANDY: And this all started kind of at a single point in your life? I mean, was there a point when you remember, like, a light switch flipped in your mind? Or is this something that just kind of gradually grew? Because you say you were sixteen or so and things got real bad, but could you just kind of clarify that a little bit?
JULIE: It wasn’t a single point. It was just gradual until it just became to such a point that I couldn’t handle it anymore, that it just encompassed, like, all of my life. Not just my home, but like I said, when I walked down the sidewalk, couldn’t step on a crack. All the tiles, whatever, had to step on the even; everything had to be even and had to be the same number between my right hand, my left hand, my left foot, my right foot; and I didn’t necessarily know it was happening. I just knew that this is what I had to do to make the anxiety go away.
ANDY: When you think back to your childhood, what do you remember about that time that was something that was affected because of your OCD that at the time you really didn’t know or realize what you were doing? I mean, is there that? Or did you kind of always classify in your mind…. I guess what I’m trying to say is, was there things that happened in your childhood that you always kind of thought were normal—until, you know, you were kind of an adult—that you didn’t realize was because you had this disorder.
JULIE: Oh yeah, definitely. I remember one time, I don’t know how old I was; maybe twelve or thirteen. And my mother had to go to the hospital. She had to have a hysterectomy. So that mean that I had to stay with my father. And obviously, I didn’t get along as well with my father as I did my mother, so that was really difficult time for me.
Well, I mean she was only in the hospital for, what, four or five days? But that was like, I remember, that was going to be the worst four days of my life—because my mother wasn’t there. So I remember, she was in the hospital; I was crying every day. So what I started to do was, I started to make lists. [Laughs.]
ANDY: I see a theme!
JULIE: Yeah. I started to make a list of everything that happened during the day—so that I could tell my mother. Because my mother wasn’t there, so I was anxious. So the only way that I could, I don’t know, fill her in, make that anxiousness go away, was to write a list of everything I’d done.
I remember specifically writing on that list, “My brother threw a sock at my face.” And I put that on the list. And I went through the whole day and then called my mother at the hospital, and I had to tell her everything that was on the list.
I mean, who does that? What kind of kid says, “Mom, I’m going to read you my list now of what happened today.” But…
ANDY: But at the time, you thought that was perfectly normal?
JULIE: Yeah, I did. I didn’t realize. I’m like, “Oh, I’ll just make a list of everything, and tell her everything that happened during the day.” But I didn’t realize that all that anxiety was building up. And it would have kept building up if I hadn’t made that list, and, you know, spewed my guts. See a theme there, too.
ANDY: Yeah, and you still do that.
ANDY: So, we’ve talked a little bit about your parents. As a child, do you think your parents ever knew that you had this problem, that you were dealing with all this stuff? Or do you think this is just something that kind of—. I can totally understand how somebody could not see this. And I say that because, when we first started dating, and all the way up through our first year of marriage, I really didn’t realize any of this stuff. And it was pretty bad back then. And so I, I’m not saying I would know you as well as your parents at that point, but I can kind of see why it would be missed a little bit. Could you just talk a little bit about whether your parents ever really knew what was happening? —Or just kind of talk about that a little bit.
JULIE: I really don’t think they had any knowledge. They don’t have any training in psychology. They probably had no idea what OCD was. They never mentioned it once my entire life, or said, “Maybe you’re a little different. Maybe we should see if you can talk to somebody about this.” They never asked if I needed to talk to them or questioned what I did.
My mom never said, “Why did you just make a list?” My dad never said, “Why do you come and spew your guts to me every time I walk in the house?”
ANDY: So you think that they probably just thought all this was kind of a normal kind of kid phase thing that you would get through?
JULIE: Yeah. Even as an adult, when my parents found out that I was taking medication, my dad asked me, “Well, why are you taking medication? Are you depressed? Are you having marriage problems?” And I was like, “No, Dad, I have OCD.” And I think that’s the first time that he ever realized it.
ANDY: Hm. So just a couple more questions, because we’re quickly coming up on way too much time…
ANDY: …so, how do you think—we’ve talked about your parents, we’ve talked about you as a young child—how do you think your OCD—even though your parents didn’t know really what was going on—how do you think it affected your family? You know, we’ve talked about how it’s affected you as a child. Can you talk a little bit about how you think it affected your brother and your parents?
JULIE: Well, I think basically what happened was, because basically my parents were oblivious (I mean that might be a harsh word, but basically because they didn’t realize what was going on), that kind of forced me to withdraw and kind of go off by myself, spend a lot of time in my room by myself, not wanting to interact. Because the less I interacted [laughs] then the less I was out in the dirty house. Then the less I had to think about keeping the dirty germs away from the good germs.
So, I think, basically, how it affected my family was that it kind of made me “the weird child” I guess, because I think the rest of the family functioned quite well. It was just me and my brother and my parents, but I always grew up feeling that, well, maybe I was like “the different one” or whatever, and I think they kind of had that feeling too: that I was just kind of the person that they could never figure out. And [laughs] looking back on it now, I think that probably has a lot to do with the OCD, because they could never figure me out. They never knew it was OCD, so it kind of made me “the weird child” and the one that… . Not the good child, because if you can’t figure your child out, then maybe they’re going to be a little bit left by themselves, apart from the rest of the family.
ANDY: Just one more question and then we’re going to have to wrap this episode up.
ANDY: How do you think dealing with this OCD, growing up as a child, how do you think this affected your social skills? Obviously you’re fine now; you have no problem; but did it affect your ability to interact with kids your age or adults growing up? Other than washing your hands as… I’m speaking more younger years, like through grade school maybe—did it affect the way that you learned how to interact with children and adults at all?
JULIE: I really don’t remember it affecting the way I interacted with other children, because for me, when I was out of my house and when I was with my friends, that’s when I could be normal. I mean, I had a lot of friends; went to a girl’s boarding school. Really, at school with my friends, that was the time I could be myself and that’s the time I could not worry about it.
ANDY: And just, in closing, is there anything that you would like to say—because we’re pretty much done for now, talking about what you dealt with as a child, and we’ll probably come back to a lot of this later—but is there anything that you would want to say to, if there’s parents out there listening that have young children or teenagers and may or may not be dealing with this; is there any advice from your point of view that you could give them on maybe what to look for, or what they can do to interact better? I know a lot of this is like, “you need to see a therapist” kind of thing, but is there just any advice or anything you can say to them?
JULIE: I would just say to parents, just look for the signs. Because mostly, most of the time in OCD, unless it’s classified as pure obsessive, there’s going to be signs. My parents, they had to notice that I was clicking the light switch and the door handles seven times. There’s signs.
So my advice would be, keep the lines of communication open with your children. Because that’s the only way that they’re going to find that they’re accepted for who they are, whether they have OCD or not. And I think that you have to let your children know that you’re there with them, that you’re going to go through this with them, and that you’ll get through this together. Because I didn’t have that, and I think that’s very important.
Look for the signs: just be aware of your children; what they’re doing, and maybe some of their habits. I think it’s pretty simple, you just have to be aware of it.
ANDY: Okay. Well, we’ve gone way over our fifteen to twenty minute mark for this episode, but I think there’s some good stuff in there. So, thanks for listening, and we’ll come back with the next episode with some more getting in to Julie’s background. So thanks for listening.
Living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder